Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.
This time out, we’re going to do something a little bit different and look at two recent series of ostensibly series. From a 30,000 foot perspective both Jim C. Hines’ Magic Ex Libris (so far comprised of Libriomancer and Codex Born) and Michael R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series (so fra comprised of Geekomancy and Celebromancy) have strong similarity. Both series tap into a fair amount of wish fulfillment and have geeky protagonists whose geekery turns out to be useful for magic. But as you dig into the series, there are two distinct personalities. They take place in two distinctly different roleplaying game universes, and this can be used as a way to critique and example the series and their elements.
Fair warning: This is a somewhat spoilery discussion of both authors’ series.
Let’s start with Jim C Hines. The Ex Libris series is set in a world where magic mainly comes from the ability to pull things out of popular books. Our hero is a member of the Die Zwelf Portenære, the secret society founded by the still living Johannes Gutenberg to study this magic and protect humanity from the threat posed by it. While it might be cool to pull Turkish Delight out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eat it, consider the idea of someone pulling out Sauron’s Ring from The Lord of the Rings and you begin to see the problems of letting this sort of magic be uncontrolled.
Isaac Vainio, the main protagonist of the series, is not just any libriomancer, either. He has a background and a love for science fiction and fantasy that mean that he is especially keen to use science fiction and fantasy novels. Pull out a blaster from a Timothy Zahn Star Wars novel? Or Greyswandir from the Chronicles of Amber? Isaac is your man. He also has a geeky and nerdy perspective and ethos, always pushing the boundaries of libriomantic knowledge in his desire to explore and expand the playground (sometimes running up against the walls set by Gutenberg).
To my mind, all this makes the series resembles the old White Wolf: Mage: The Ascension game. The Libriomancers are a Tradition of Mages, just like in that game. Hidden from humanity, but ostensibly working for their benefit, even as they sometimes come into conflict with each other. The Libriomancers work under a formal magic paradigm; people awaken into the talent libriomancy and the Die Zwelf Portenære recruit them in short order, just like in the RPG. There are some magical creatures, mostly hiding in the shadows, that the Mages have to deal and come to terms with, and sometimes come into sharp conflict with.
It goes even further. In Codex Born, we learn about an opposing Tradition of Mages that has been hidden in the shadows for a long time, in direct opposition to Gutenberg and company. That tradition has its own variation and paradigm on book magic, and different strengths and abilities as a result. We also learn that Gutenberg’s development of Libriomancy came in a time of a lot of societies of mages running around the Middle Ages and Renaissance, all of them in conflict. This, too, feels like the backstory and past of a Mage: The Ascension game. Long-running conflicts are often at the heart of conflicts between Traditions in a Mage game, and the Ex Libris series has been slowly pulling back the curtain and revealing that through the two books. And then there are the Devourers, who seem to be a threat to everyone, whispering secrets and promises of power, and trying to corrupt mages of all stripes. These sound awfully like Mage‘s Extradimensional entity serving Nephandi, to me.
By contrast, Mike R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series is set in a world full of secret and underground magic users. Our heroine, Ree Reyes, a geeky worker in a comic book store (and would-be screenwriter), finds that her geekery makes her suited, once properly indoctrinated, into the magic system of Geekomancy. Geekomancy is a very street level, ad hoc sort of magic system, using love of geek products as well as destroying precious artifacts in order to gain temporary magical boosts. If you have a love for a geek property, and lots of people know about that geek property, you can derive power from it. Ree probably couldn’t get much out of watching eXistenZ, but Leverage? Yeah, she can temporarily turn into Parker with an episode viewing. That’s a potent use of her magic.
What Geekomancy and Celebromancy resemble is not the formal traditions and old conflicts of Mage: The Ascension, but rather Greg Stolze’s Unknown Armies. Unknown Armies is a contemporary urban fantasy roleplaying game. Modern weirdness and magic that lurks in the recesses of the mind are blended together with some truly bizarre and usually idiosyncratic magical practices based on concepts both ancient and modern, or crosses between the two.
Celebromancy, the second novel, has Ree become introduced to a second “major” school of magic, the titular Celebromancy. Wonder why some actors and actresses just seem to have a preternatural ability to hold and attract attention? They may indeed be practicing celebromancers, using their power to enhance their position. And, like the “archetypes” that characters can embody in Unknown Armies, celebromancers can really gain power by taking on Archetypal roles and positions in the Hollywood hierarchy, such as America’s Sweetheart.
By the end of Celebromancy, we have seen Geekomancy, Celebromancy, working Faerie Steampunk, extensive magical rituals, and ad hoc desperate grabs for power to survive a conflict. The relationship map between various entities and factions is variegated, complex, fractal and extensively individualized. And it is those conflicts between factions that is at the heart of a good Unknown Armies game, as they struggle to shape the world and each other from the shadows. Ree, Jane, Eastwood, and even would all be easily statted up as Unknown Armies characters.
And, like Unknown Armies, it feels like any sort of secret, weird, individualized magic system could fit into the shadows of Underwood’s universe. Indeed, his world, like Unknown Armies, seems to get its inspiration, energy and worldbuilding drive by the diversity and continued evolving diversity of the magic practitioners running around. I look forward to to seeing what sort of -mancies there are out there, just as players in a UA game are often very curious to find out what other weird practitioners there are out there with their own powers.
Thus, while both series start from the same place, they have distinctly different flavors and renditions of the intersection of geekery, magic, and fantasy literature. Their mapping onto roleplaying games, as I have done here, lays that bare. What this also proves, too, is that even if two authors have similar ideas, the execution of the ideas, especially getting into multiple volumes, can be distinctly and strikingly different and evolve in unique directions from each other. Both of these authors and series are well worth your reading and I am excited what both authors will do in future volumes of their series.
And now that I’ve broached this idea, perhaps the concept of, say, Paul S Kemp’s Hammer and the Blade feeling like old edition D&D, complete with strange and eldritch magic, does not seem so odd, now?